MANCHESTER, N.H. — After providing Donald Trump the momentum to roll to the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, the country’s first primary state may well do the exact opposite for him eight years later: Deal him a loss that cripples his hopes of returning to the Oval Office.
The twice-impeached former president who tried to overthrow the republic after losing his 2020 reelection has been hoping that his hold over a large slice of the Republican base and the $110 million he has already socked away in his political committee will give him a clear path to the 2024 nomination, should he want it.
This week, a 2016 rival-turned-ally-turned-critic made clear that that will not be happening.
“No one is going to give the presidential Republican nomination in 2024 away without a competition. It’s not going to happen. And it shouldn’t happen,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a key New Hampshire campaign trail stop, before mocking the fear about running against Trump. “I mean, we’re not talking about Dwight Eisenhower here. Seriously. We’re not talking about somebody who was the supreme allied commander in World War II.”
Christie, who has been outspoken about Trump’s culpability in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, is just the latest potential 2024 Republican hopeful to openly criticize Trump. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton attacked his criminal justice reform law at a Reagan Library speech two weeks ago as being soft on crime. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in January said Trump had mismanaged the COVID pandemic by shutting down the economy. And former Vice President Mike Pence, whose life had been threatened by Trump’s mob on Jan. 6, hit Trump for his continual praise for the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
“There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin,” Pence said in a speech to GOP donors earlier this month.
Jim MacEachern, the chair of the town of Derry’s Republican committee, said the criticisms were fair and that Trump, if he chooses to run, needs to be prepared with an answer for them. “It needs an honest assessment and a willingness to look into the mirror,” he said.
In 2016, Trump went from losing Iowa to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to a first-place finish in New Hampshire, which led to wins in South Carolina and then a string of victories in other southern states on Super Tuesday.
Trump’s campaign successfully drove off serious challenges in 2020 as he sought reelection, but will not be able to in 2024, as the attacks against him in recent weeks have shown already. And if Christie and others are determined to thwart Trump’s desire for a third straight nomination, New Hampshire, with its small size and highly engaged electorate, could be the ideal place to do it — much as it was for John McCain in 2008, who went on to win the nomination against a much-better-funded Mitt Romney.
Indeed, Trump’s potential challengers have an argument right at their fingertips, said Jennifer Horn, a former state GOP chair.
“He already has been beaten in New Hampshire,” she said, pointing out that Trump, as the incumbent president, lost in November 2020 by a margin 20 times as large as he had four years earlier. “Donald Trump cannot win a general election in New Hampshire. And that is something that Republican primary voters should take seriously.”
New Hampshire 2024 … Already
The “Politics and Eggs” breakfast at St. Anselm College in Manchester has for decades been a must-visit for Oval Office aspirants, with candidates speaking to an influential group of business, academic and political leaders, taking questions and, per custom, signing the event’s trademark wooden eggs for attendees.
This week saw the first gathering after a two-year COVID-induced hiatus with the return of Christie, who with remarks as critical toward Trump as toward the sitting Democratic president opened the 2024 season with a flourish.
“It’s really heating up,” said Neil Levesque, the director of the school’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
Traditionally, campaigns for president do not officially start until the spring following midterm elections, with the previous year and a half reserved for potential candidates making visits to early voting states to help local candidates and, while they’re there, speaking with county party committees and civic groups.
In that category already among potential 2024 Republicans in addition to Christie: Pence, Cotton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley scheduled to visit in the coming weeks.
Levesque said Christie’s blunt criticism of Trump could well catch on. “I think that there’s room to do that,” he said, adding that the approach may, in fact, be the savvier play, as opposed to trying to inherit Trump’s base the day he chooses not to run. “If you want to be ‘Trump Lite’ waiting for that day, well, that day may not happen.”
Christie, who estimates that some 15 Republicans will run if Trump does not but that only three or four will be willing to challenge Trump, declined to guess who the other two or three in that second category would be.
But MacEachern said he wouldn’t be surprised to see several others, including some who, like Haley, have said they will not run against Trump wind up deciding to do exactly that.
“This is March of 2022. Call me again in March of 2023,” he said, adding that part of their current reticence is likely based on not wanting to be seen as a front-runner too early and attracting attacks from others, particularly Trump. “There’s a lot of people in the back seat right now, watching the driver.”
The Twice-Impeached Front-Runner
Trump is facing several investigations that against normal candidates would be deal-breakers, including a criminal probe in Georgia into his attempts to coerce state officials into reversing his election loss there and potentially one from the U.S. Justice Department for his efforts to block the congressional certification of the election. Despite this, he remained the overwhelming favorite among Republican voters for the 2024 nomination since his departure from office.
That, though, was before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine cast new light on Trump’s extortion of that country in 2019 by holding hostage $391 million in military aid as well as his continual praise of the Russian dictator through the years, including on the very day that he sent his army across the border.
Those statements, in fact, gave Christie his strongest attack lines against Trump in his 80 minutes of remarks and answers to audience questions.
“Do we want to send admiring words to someone, who as we speak this morning, is directing the slaughter of women and children in Ukraine, without any conscience? Words matter, everybody,” Christie said. “And those words, of people from our party, who called him genius and very savvy, are being re-played over and over on Russian television to justify and prop up a dictator who is sending his soldiers to slaughter in Ukraine.”
The Ukraine invasion has already changed the underlying assumptions of the 2024 Republican primaries ― with nine months left to go in 2022, Levesque said.
“There’s a lot of time between now and then,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot more changes.”
Which is where the quirks of New Hampshire could well be Trump’s undoing, should he choose to run.
New Hampshire Republican and independents likely to vote in the GOP primary are still, at their core, New Hampshire voters, said MacEachern, which will benefit candidates willing to put in the time to connect with as many voters as possible to make their case in person.
“New Hampshire is very much a boots-on-the-ground, shake-my-hand, look-me-in-the eye kind of place,” he said. “We have five major sports seasons. You’ve got the Red Sox, the Celtics, you’ve got the New England Patriots, you’ve got the Bruins, and you’ve got political season. And their favorite sport might be political season.”
Horn, who chaired the state party in 2016 but then left because of her opposition to Trump, said that while Trump does retain a hardcore base of supporters, most Republican primary voters are more interested in winning than in stroking Trump’s ego. “Could somebody beat Trump in New Hampshire? Yes. They could.”
Fergus Cullen, a fellow former state GOP chairman who also opposes Trump, was far less optimistic, especially if Trump runs against multiple candidates again — similar to how he managed to win the New Hampshire primary in 2016 with just 35% of the vote.
“I’d have to say he’s favored. Especially if he starts out at 40% and it’s a multi-candidate field. We’ve seen this before,” he said. “I’ve spent too many years underestimating Trump’s staying power.”